The first bestseller in America, “Charlotte Temple” follows the moral downfall of the eponymous character. The impeccably gorgeous and virtuous Charlotte wants nothing more than to please her parents and live a quiet, controlled life. That all changes when she meets Montraville, a dashing British soldier. She is then coerced, thanks to some meddling from her amoral French governess, to elope with him and sail to America. However Montraville only sleeps with her and does not marry her. She, predictably, is soon pregnant and Montraville quickly skedaddles away. There she is, a picture of fallen virtue and lost youth. If only she had just listened to her parents…
If there is one thing 18th century literary critics and I agree on, it is that this book is truly awful. The writing itself is poor, with many breaks in narration and awkward points. The characters are stereotypical and poorly developed and you can bet anytime anyone has a French name they are evil. The scenes are mostly a sad mixture of awkward and dull. Take for example this scene which takes place right after Charlotte has consented to go away with Montraville:
“ …feeling her own treacherous heart too much inclined to accompany them, the hapless Charlotte, in an evil hour, consented that the next evening they should bring a chaise to the end of the town, and that she would leave her friends, and throw herself entirely on the protection of Montraville. "But should you," said she, looking earnestly at him, her eyes full of tears, "should you, forgetful of your promises, and repenting the engagements you here voluntarily enter into, forsake and leave me on a foreign shore—" "Judge not so meanly of me," said he. "The moment we reach our place of destination, Hymen shall sanctify our love; and when I shall forget your goodness, may heaven forget me."
I think that pretty much says it all.
Yet it doesn’t, because I have another serious concern with this book. While this presumably reflects the moral ideas of 18th century Britain, it ruffles by 21st century feathers. Rowson lays out a tale of a girl who, by seeking sexual pleasure, loses everything, including her life. The book hammers into you again and again that the only way to have any value is to be submissive to one’s parents and virginal. It goes so far as to say that the only honorable part about a woman is her hymen. I am strongly against this sentiment. While Montraville is horrible, and Charlotte quite foolish, premarital sex is not a one-way ticket to hell.
If this book has left me with anything, it is the clear conviction that if I were born in America’s early years I would have been hanged as a witch by age 15.